With the NRL season getting closer and closer, the first of the team previews are in and it is the Wests Tigers that are first up. Can they prove the punters wrong and avoid the wooden spoon, or will they languish at the bottom of the ladder for most of the season?
2014 Gains: GAINS:Pat Richards(Wigan) Martin Taupau (Canterbury Bulldogs) Keith Lulia (Bradford Bulls) Dene Halatau (Canterbury Bulldogs) Blake Austin (Panthers) Cory Paterson (Hull KR)
In recent years, the Tigers are a team that have all the talent in the world yet as a collective unit have struggled, given the struggles of some of their key players for long portions of the season.
Perhaps the biggest talking point ahead of the 2014 season is the loss of Benji Marshall to Union and the emergence of boom half Luke Brooks, a young man that a lot of Tigers fans have big hopes for and one that fans hope can turn the Tigers back into a premiership force.
A question you must then ask yourself is, as talented as Brooks is, will he be able to cope with that added pressure and how will he fare with all eyes on him? Is he ready to make that permanent step up to first-grade?
The Tigers side on paper is one that you would describe as quite good overall, with rep players such as prop Aaron Woods and inspirational captain Robbie Farah, all coupled with some new, sturdy recruits and some tremendous young talent that proved their worth last year.
Recruiting fairly well during the off-season, another big question for the Tigers is how their halves combination is going to look ahead of the season proper.
With Braith Anasta and Blake Austin both linked to the five-eighth role, fans have their differing views on who should play there.
To make such a decision even harder, both players have had decent success in trial games so far – the Nines comp included – thus leaving coach Mick Potter with a tough decision to make. Whilst Austin’s youth and versatility may work in his favour, experience is crucial in the NRL and with someone like Anasta, he can be a solid mentor for the young Brooks coming through the ranks.
One player that is not under pressure as such but will have to show his leadership skills, is captain Robbie Farah. With the departure of Benji Marshall leaving a gaping hole in their leadership ranks, Farah has additional responsibility in that department now and will have to be the one to lead from the front and help the younger players make a smooth transition into first-grade.
Losing a few talented youngsters like Brenden Santi, Matt Groat and Manaia Rudolph may hurt the Tigers depth this season but they are accustomed to that, having been forced to dig deep last year when it came to picking players after a horrible injury toll.
That dreaded toll has continued, with Tim Moltzen and Dene Halatau both out for the long-term already.
Despite that, the Tigers have long been blessed with a youth system that has produced some terrific young talents and at some point in the season, we are likely to see the likes of Nathan Brown and potentially Kyle Lovett playing first-grade. It is these young, talented players from their junior ranks, that the Tigers use to build a core foundation for their team moving forward.
Another big talking point is the return of Pat Richards. Everyone remembers the 2005 grand final when he raced away to score after a magical flick pass from Benji Marshall and after some years in the Super League, the veteran centre has returned to the NRL. Some question whether he can emulate his form from when he left the NRL and others believe it is simply a matter of time before he does. Regardless, the experience to a young Tigers back-line is crucial for the club moving forward.
All in all, the Tigers fans have high hopes for their side, even if a lot of punters believe they are destined for a bottom 4 finish, if not the wooden spoon. Perhaps with minimal pressure on the side, it can give them the opportunity to play with freedom and the chance to showcase their talents as a collective unit.
Player To Watch: Tim Simona. Simona is a young, speedy and talented winger blessed with speed, power and a desire to make as many metres as possible. Scoring several spectacular solo tries last season and involved in some great attacking raids, Simona is a player that is a game-breaker. He only needs one opportunity and if given the time and space, he can make the most of it, such is the dynamic nature of his play. With the form he was in during 2013, if he can emulate that in 2014 and make the most of the opportunities that come his way, he may well be a crucial player for the Tigers in their premiership assault.
As for what I believe their team will look like – injuries taken into account of course – here it is:
1. James Tedesco
2. David Nofoaluma
3. Chris Lawrence
4. Pat Richards
5. Tim Simona
6. Braith Anasta
7. Luke Brooks
8. Aaron Woods
9. Robbie Farah (C)
10. Keith Galloway
11. Liam Fulton
12. Blake Austin
13. Adam Blair
14. Jack Buchanan
15. Ben Murdoch-Masila
16. Sauaso Sue
17. Martin Taupau